By Paul Krueger
It’s tricky, writing a review of a stand-up special. Reviewers, in an effort to prevent spoilers, could fall into three paragraphs’ worth of platitudes that don’t actually reveal anything about the special. Or, on the other side of things, they could just end up writing out bullet points of premises and punchlines that would look like Louis CK’s set list, if he ever bothered to write any.
So here we are at Wine & Pop, threading the needle as best we can. Oh My God, which premiered this past Saturday on HBO, is not CK’s strongest hour to date. But it’s an improvement over last year’s Live at the Beacon Theater, a special that would have been outstanding for any other comedian but was anemic in the face of the precedent his previous specials had set. This time, CK performs on a round stage in a venue in Phoenix, Arizona.
“This is easily the nicest place for many miles in any direction,” he says in his opening bit, adding: “That’s how you compliment a building and shit on a town in one sentence.”
CK traded in his usual black t-shirt in favor of a dark polo (with visible black tee underneath), but that’s about the only thing that’s changed. Which is not to say the material’s at all gotten stale. In fact, it’s a tribute to CK’s comedic abilities that he’s able to riff on his favorite subjects (getting old, fatherhood, human excrement) year after year and still come up with fresh and funny concepts each time around. If jokes about letting everyone with nut allergies die for the sake of human progress aren’t your cup of tea, I doubt this will be the special that turns you around on Louis CK. But otherwise, you’re in good (and sweaty) hands.
One element I appreciated about Oh My God, especially as compared to Live at the Beacon Theater: restraint. Oh My God’s venue is more extravagant, to be sure, and CK’s dusted off a shirt with a collar, but his material and delivery have taken a more grounded turn. In last year’s special, I found myself taken out of moments when he would indulge in larger-than-life antics, like belting Bad Company lyrics to communicate the potence of modern marijuana. In Oh My God, he still shows his usual enthusiasm, but he’s back now to letting the laughter come to him; last year, it rather felt at times as though he were chasing it.
I’ve now mentioned Live at the Beacon Theater several times in this review, and there’s a few reasons for that. For one, it’s a fairer standard of comparison than, say, the most recent season of Louie; both are hilarious and sprang like Athena from CK’s bald pate, but they’re different animals. But beyond that, my hands are somewhat tied as far as discussing actual content, so I instead wish to speculate as to how Oh My God will be remembered by Louis CK fans, and comedy fans in general.
Live at the Beacon Theater was unfortunately overshadowed by its unorthodox method of deployment: a method that may have also contributed to overhype and subsequent disappointment. Presumably, HBO dropped a Berlin Airlift’s worth of money into CK’s lap to stop him from doing it again, so Oh My God doesn’t have that problem. Its problem, such as it is, is that few of its bits are breakaway home-runs. To move forward with the baseball analogy, what CK has served up with Oh My God is a special full of triples, with the occasional double.
The hour does have one grand slam, though, and CK wisely saves it for the end. The bit, titled “Of Course, But Maybe,” demonstrates the ways he attempts to reconcile his ethical beliefs with his more pragmatic and evil thoughts. It’s a wonder he hasn’t written the bit before now; it’s a perfect distillation of his comedic sensibility. After a solid hour of observations on the nature of general human awfulness, it’s the time in the special he sets aside to ask what all of it really means and says about us.
Of course, his conclusions involve mass suffering and death. But maybe, when you get past the artifice of expression and dig into the idea under its hood, he’s onto something.